Launch Global Education
Sparks blog: Understanding the SAT Exam, Part 1

by Mr. Michael Wagner

When it comes to the college going process there is probably no topic that gets as much attention as standardized testing—specifically the SAT and ACT exams. It seems that any time students and families hear those acronyms panic and anxiety follow. The fear students feel toward these exams is palpable.

There are many myths and misconceptions when it comes to standardized testing and the purpose it serves in the college going process. Let us take a few minutes and explore standardized testing, including the reason it is used and why students and families should not let it consume their attention, in the first of this two-part series.

student taking exam

The beginning

The history of standardized testing goes back to the early 1920’s when the U.S. Army implemented an IQ exam for testing purposes in the recruitment of soldiers. By the mid 1930’s Harvard university empowered Henry Chauncey, an assistant dean at the time, to implement a standardized test for the creation of a scholarship program for academically gifted students. By the mid 1940’s the popularity grew for the exam that an estimated 300,000 people were tested in one day (sourced from: Secrets of the SAT: Frontline, 1995). The College Board and the Educational Testing Services was formed and became responsible for the administration of the exam, which was quickly adopted by colleges and universities to be used in the admissions process of college applicants.

The purpose

Over the test of time the purpose of standardized tests has gone through several stages of development and the use of the exam results has varied. The core foundation of a standardized exam is to gauge the level of college readiness of a high school student. As the word standardized means, the test serves as a common reference point for all students taking the exam. The test is timed and created in sections that all students will perform at the same time. There is no difference from student to student. Hence the word – standardized.

double scale

The controversy

Unfortunately, as much as one would relate to the concept of standardized, the one factor that interrupts the process is that there is no standardization of academic curriculum being delivered at all schools. It would be safe to say that students are being taught academic curriculum in a variety of ways across the world. This alone creates an abundance of challenges and obstacles for students taking this style of exams.

However, there is also the argument that no matter the delivery or curriculum, the core subjects being taught in schools are similar. While the delivery may vary, language is language, math is math, and science is science. A student will either know the material or not and when comparing students in the admissions process standardized testing does just that, it creates a baseline for which admissions departments can compare students against each other based on a standard of academic knowledge in order to make admissions decisions.

The trend

Over the last several years there has been a movement to lessen the impact a standardized test may have on a college admissions decision. Opponents of the exams’ usage contend that standardized test scores are an unfair way to gauge a student’s success in college. Some argue that the exam is biased; others that there are a large group of students that just aren’t good test takers. Many state that standardized test scores serve no purpose in the wholistic approach to admissions, because one score on one exam day, at one time in one place cannot measure the abilities of a student.

One organization that has strongly argued that standardized test scores do not need to be part of the college admissions process is The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, FairTest ( The center’s purpose is to advance and promote fair and open educational evaluation opportunities for students. Its message is that there are other methods that can be used within the college admissions process to evaluate applicants’ qualities accurately and fairly without using a standardized test. They contend that the ultimate purpose is to judge students on their merits of their academic achievements, their experiential learning experiences and the activities that have formed who they are as students.

Following these beliefs, some colleges and universities across the country offer students an application method called test optional. This option allows students to choose whether or not to submit standardized test scores for consideration.

There is much controversy that has formed around standardized testing, yet it is easy to see both sides of the story. On one hand, there should be some type of common measurement established in the academic evaluation of students for admittance into post-secondary institutions. However, one wonders if a score received on an exam is the right way to measure.

In part 2 of this series, we will examine the standardized testing process, how outcomes are determined, and what the future holds for the exam.

Mr. Michael J. Wagner

Michael Wagner, MAED is a founder and the Knowledge Pilot for Launch Education.  Mr. Mike has assisted hundreds of students around the world on their college pathways.